Belfast — In Northern Ireland the so-called ``marching season'' extends from Easter to the end of August. In recent years it has been a period of heightened tension between Northern Ireland's Protestants and Roman Catholics. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, 3,000 members of Northern Ireland's largest Protestant marching organization, accompanied by bands, march down Belfast's main street.
The members of the Orange Order stride purposefully to a religious service in a Methodist hall near a Roman Catholic enclave. The march is peaceful and orderly. The marchers are all males.
They are soberly dressed in their best Sunday suits, but each wears a vivid orange sash or a large orange collarete. The ages of the Orangemen, as members are called, vary from some in their late 60s to teen-agers.
This annual parade, staged last month, is the largest turn-out so far in the season. It is a church parade and is nonpolitical. Its purpose is partly to raise money for the local Orangemen's ``Widows and Orphans Fund.'' Nevertheless, the police keep a discreet watch as the Orangemen pass by. A number of bystanders wave to friends and relatives on parade. It all seems so peaceful.
Only four hours earlier, a 500-pound bomb, packed in a car near the parade route, was defused. Security forces had been tipped off by an anonymous caller, claiming to be a member of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
Later, the head of the Orange Order in Belfast, John McCrea, warned IRA paramilitaries that the Orangemen would not be intimidated and would continue to march.
The Orange Order was formed in 1795 after a battle between Protestant and Roman Catholic peasantry. The strife arose partly because of a rapid increase in population and the scarcity of farmland. Protestant farmers complained that they were in danger of being forced out by Catholics.
The victors formed the Orange Society -- later the Orange Order -- to maintain ``Protestant ascendancy'' in the province. Critics of the Orangemen claim that this remains its prime motive today.
The Orangemen take their name from King William III of England, a Dutch prince from the House of Orange who took the throne in 1689. His accession, after a series of battles with the Catholic monarch King James II, ensured that future kings would be Protestants. A major battle in the continuing conflict occurred at the River Boyne in Ireland in July 1690. Even today, the high point of the Orangeman's year is the annual July 12 march to commemorate that battle. Each year there are some 2,000 marches in various parts of the province. Some are held by Irish nationalists, those favoring union with the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland to the south. The vast majority of marches, however, are by so-called ``unionist'' organizations, who favor continued integration with Britain.
Critics say that the primary purpose of the Orange Order, which claims to have 100,000 members in the province, is to promote Protestants in jobs and local politics, reflecting a continued mentality of ``a Protestant ascendency.''
Brian Feeny, a Belfast councillor who belongs to the mainly-Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, says marching is used as a symbol of Protestant power. However, Mr. Feeny differentiates between the nonpolitical, annual parades, such as the ones held April 27 or July 12, and other marches that deliberately take place near predominantly Catholic areas to declare a kind of Protestant supremacy.
``Some of the big marches, as on July 12, are family occasions when everyone has a day out,'' Feeny says. ``These are not deliberately provocative; but some of the smaller marches are different. These are exercises in stamping out territory, an insistence on marching wherever you like, irrespective of the views of the people who live there.''
It is these smaller marches that often prove to be flashpoints. An example of this is the series of clashes in Portadown earlier this year, where Protestants fought police who stopped them from marching past Catholic residential areas. The Protestants were incensed, because they believed the marches were stopped as a result of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which gives the Republic of Ireland a limited advisory voice in running the province of Northern Ireland.
Walter Williams, who has been secretary at the Orange Order's Belfast headquarters for 28 years, makes it clear that marching was and is an integral part of the Orange Order's activities.
``Marching is an expression of our witness,'' Mr. Williams says. ``The Orange Order is a marching institution. . . . Marching is the way to show the world that we are British and proud of it.''